Despite momentum, statute of limitations approaches on unsolved political murders

Several legal obstacles remain in the search for justice and accountability in the unsolved political murders of the 1990s.

By Ozgur Ogret for SES Türkiye in Istanbul -- 17/09/12

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As the statute of limitations nears to prosecute those responsible for political killings in southeast Turkey during the 1990s and the AKP government gains greater control and accountability over the military, some momentum is building to bring justice to the families of victims, according to the international group Human Rights Watch.

  • Human Rights Watch called for an end to the impunity of those responsible for unsolved murders and disappearances during the 1990s. [Ozgur Ogret/SES Türkiye]

    Human Rights Watch called for an end to the impunity of those responsible for unsolved murders and disappearances during the 1990s. [Ozgur Ogret/SES Türkiye]

Although the topic was highly avoided by the mainstream media during the height of the conflict between the PKK and the Turkish Armed Forces in the 1990s, human rights bodies such as the European Court of Human Rights and parliamentary committees as well as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Human Rights Association of Turkey have documented human rights abuses committed by the security forces in the southeast during the 1990s.

Two cases on the extrajudicial murders are ongoing in Diyarbakir, but the cases lack the public interest and media coverage of Ergenekon and Sledgehammer investigations.

A trial that opened in 2009 against Colonel Cemal Temizoz, three alleged PKK informers and three village guards charged with heading a unit responsible for the death of 20 people in Sirnak province in the early 1990s was viewed as a milestone in the search for justice.

But according to human rights groups, the cases are limited in scope and do not take into account the wider responsibility or address the culpability of state institutions and organisations within the security forces.

In particular, the alleged activities of the Gendarmerie Intelligence and Anti-Terrorism Unit (JITEM) and former PKK informants, which included political assassinations, torture, emptying villages and other violent counter-terrorism activities, have never been fully investigated or brought to court.

Hundreds of people are believed to be in unmarked graves after "disappearing" at the hands of JITEM, while the cause of thousands of deaths by the PKK, who also carried out serious human rights abuses, and security forces remain unsolved.

The Chief of General Staff denies the existence of JITEM, but parliamentary committees, former security and intelligence officials and prime ministers have acknowledged its existence.

"Officially, there is no trial named as the JITEM trial," Tahir Elçi, a victim lawyer in the Temizoz trial told SES Türkiye, explaining that two cases, one started in 1999 and the other in 2009, are looking into separate murders but not the whole organisation and state responsibility.

As the trials move slowly through the judicial system, public interest wanes, Emma Webb-Sinclair, the senior researcher on Turkey at Human Rights Watch, told SES Türkiye.

"The trouble is that these cases run years in Turkey and of course the press loses interest unless there is a sensational development in the course of a trial," she said, adding that the extrajudicial killings were "the most serious human right abuses that took place in Turkey in recent history."

Emrah Yuceloglu, secretary-general for the Human Rights Association, said that all circles in society and the government should put every effort to uncover JITEM activities, "because one of the most important layers of the Kurdish problem we face today are the unsolved incidents of murders and disappearances committed by JITEM, especially in the 1990s."

As the 20-year statute of limitations nears on the unsolved political murders from the 1990s, Human Rights Watch published a report on September 3rd demanding a witness protection programme, an independent board, faster trials, expert lawyers to deal with these cases exclusively, and a more dedicated legal approach from the Turkish state overall.

Once the statute of limitations is reached, prosecutors can ask for a 10-year extension if it is shown that progress is being made.

The recommendations were based on lessons taken from the Temizoz trial, in which Human Rights Watch noted prosecutors limited the scope of investigations and failed to investigate responsibility further up the chain of command.

Human Rights Watch also said intimidation of lawyers and witnesses, lack of a witness protection programme and lengthy trials are all problems, as is the continuation of the village guard system in the southeast.

Two parliamentary committees in the 1990s looked into the unsolved murders and the possible collusion of the state and security forces, but as the Human Rights Watch report indicates no one in the state was held responsible for grave human rights violations.

According the Yuceloglu, the AKP has approached the matter in a more positive manner than the political parties in the 1990s, but he still finds the state's response "insufficient."

He seconded Human Rights Watch's call for an independent research committee for unsolved murders and urged the government to not to fall into populism by sacrificing a few scapegoats.

"The government should decode the whole system that created the disappearance incidents," Yuceloglu said. "All those who are responsible as a whole should be held accountable for the unsolved murders and disappearances; not with a trial in which just a colonel or a civil servant is tried."

The Human Rights Watch report can be read here in Turkish and here in English.


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